Friday, 7 December 2007

Twenty Years Ago

12-7-87 The big news these days is the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to the United States. He’s in Washington to sign an arms treaty with Ronald Reagan [1911-2004], a treaty that eliminates an entire class of nuclear weapons. The national media, of course, are abuzz with the news. There are special reports, special segments on the news programs, live broadcasts, and so on. What I find interesting is the way hard-line conservatives have reacted to the treaty. Kevin Phillips, previously a supporter of Reagan, has called him a “useful idiot for Soviet propaganda”. Richard Viguerie, a conservative fundraiser, says that he doesn’t “know” this Reagan. Both accuse him of betraying the conservative cause. This should show you just how conservative these people are, and I suspect that there are many more out there just like them. In their ideal world, we would not even talk to Soviet leaders, much less negotiate with them or enter into treaties with them. The Soviets, they say, are evil, and have never abided by a treaty; so why should we trust them again? It’s a good point, but the solution is to make every effort to verify, not rule out negotiation altogether. For political pundits like me, these are interesting times. I love the give and take of politics.

The other center of attention is Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa. Every news report shows her, clad in a long fur coat, being led around by Nancy Reagan. The irony of this is that Raisa is an intellectual. She holds the Russian equivalent of a Ph.D. degree in philosophy (though in the Soviet Union a degree in philosophy is a degree in Marxist sociology). Nancy Reagan, in contrast, is as unintellectual as one can get. From what I’ve read and heard, she cares only about clothing, interior design, her husband, and drug abuse. She probably cares about the latter only because she is First Lady and needs a “cause”. So I tried to imagine what Raisa and Nancy could talk about during their meetings. Raisa could discuss the nature of a classless society or the Marxist conception of exploitation; Nancy could discuss hemlines. Raisa could describe the newest five-year economic plan; Nancy could describe the antiques in the Lincoln Room of the White House. Raisa could predict the future of the Persian Gulf; Nancy could predict next year’s Paris fashions. If I sound sarcastic, it’s because I am. What offends me is the idea that Raisa and Nancy are on a par with one another simply because they are spouses of heads of state. They are as different as night and day. If nothing else, American kids will see that the spouse of a politician—even a powerful politician—need not be a mere appendage. Nancy Reagan has been sending out the wrong signal for seven years.

The topic of this evening’s lecture was reverse discrimination. The students and I read Ronald Dworkin’s 1976 article of that title. As I explained to the students, it’s unfortunate that this is all we had to read, for the arguments against reverse discrimination are powerful and illuminating. I mentioned Richard Posner’s work as an example. One wonders whether the editors [John Perry and Michael Bratman] put a liberal article in on purpose. But I did my best to balance the discussion. We tried to state and understand Dworkin’s argument; then I threw it open for discussion. I got the distinct impression that everyone, or nearly everyone, was against reverse discrimination. If this is right, and if my students are representative of students or young people everywhere, affirmative action programs may be doomed. The sense is that although my parents and grandparents may have discriminated against blacks and other minorities, I sure didn’t, and I’m not willing to pay the price for what they did. In other words, don’t make me take a back seat to blacks simply because I’m white. That would be as bad as making blacks take a back seat to whites simply because they’re black.

The response to this is obvious. White males have benefitted from their sex and skin color and would not be where they are without oppression and discrimination. But the students aren’t impressed. Perhaps acknowledging this premise undercuts their sense of accomplishment and identity. After all, if it’s true that I, Keith Burgess-Jackson, have been the beneficiary of discrimination, then I haven’t accomplished as much as I thought. What appeared to be the product of my efforts is really a gift, something for which I haven’t worked and that I don’t deserve. So this line of argument is unpopular. I must admit, though, to being attracted to a race- and sex-neutral society, a society in which race and sex never figure in the distribution of benefits and burdens. But I can’t ignore the fact that not everyone is starting with an equal chance. White males are ahead in the race, while blacks and women are shackled at the starting gate. That’s not fair. I’ve long wrestled with these problems. Tonight was just the most recent match.

Religion and Politics

I think highly of Charles Krauthammer as a person, as a thinker, and as a writer, but I disagree with him about the relevance of religion to politics (or, more specifically, to presidential politics). Religion isn’t just one of many personal attributes, like hair color, occupation, or hobbies; for most people, it’s constitutive of who one is. Most people derive their values from their religion. Their faith gives their lives meaning, purpose, depth, and texture. Why should people have to ignore this when deliberating about presidential candidates? Are we choosing machines or people? To know that someone is a Christian, for example, is to know a great many morally and politically relevant things about him or her. That Krauthammer wishes to deny this knowledge to people is puzzling. Can anyone explain it? (By the way, Krauthammer used the expression “total irrelevancy,” which is doubly mistaken. First, the proper word is “irrelevance,” not “irrelevancy.” Second, the expression implies that relevance is a matter of degree. It is not. A thing is either relevant or irrelevant to another thing. Relevance is all or nothing. Thus, it makes no sense to say that X is more relevant than Y to Z, that X is almost relevant to Y, or that X is very relevant or totally irrelevant to Y.)

From the Mailbag


In the universe of galaxies of systems of worlds the Internet has become, I consider this morning’s discovery of the writings of one Keith Burgess-Jackson among the very few that justify my ongoing deep-space explorations.

Your Journal article was—well, “conceptually clarifying,” and I find your blog entertaining, provocative, and a rich source of pointers to more good things and fun things and other things I’m better off for having found.

Thank you.

Austin, Texas

Note from KBJ: I am not making these letters up!


Here is Peggy Noonan’s latest column. Here is Peg Kaplan’s latest post.

Best of the Web Today



Richard John Neuhaus (a Roman Catholic) has some favorable things to say about Mitt Romney’s speech.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

What are the dimensions and duration of the United States’ involvement in Iraq as contemplated—and planned for—by the Bush administration? An answer is at hand, though it has been largely overlooked by members of Congress and the news media.

The State Department is currently overseeing the construction of the largest United States embassy in the world, by far. It occupies 104 acres, is 10 times the size of the second largest, in Beijing, is designed to be completely self-contained and to cost $1 billion a year to maintain. Its construction budget was originally $600 million, but the latest estimates place its cost at $1 billion.

Such a project is a clear indication that the United States’ involvement in Iraq will be extended and extensive.

David Hill
Mill Valley, Calif., Dec. 4, 2007

John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, Paragraph 26

Chapter 2, Moral Influences in Early Youth. My Father’s Character and Opinions

In my education, as in that of everyone, the moral influences, which are so much more important than all others, are also the most complicated, and the most difficult to specify with any approach to completeness. Without attempting the hopeless task of detailing the circumstances by which, in this respect, my early character may have been shaped, I shall confine myself to a few leading points, which form an indispensable part of any true account of my education.

Note from KBJ: Those of you who have young children, or who plan to have children, will find this chapter interesting and informative. By the way, if you haven’t been reading these paragraphs from the beginning, you can catch up by clicking the category “John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)” immediately under this post. It will bring up all the paragraphs, in order. Aren’t blogs neat?

A Year Ago